Houien-Tsang was born in North-western China in 602 a.d. of a family of Confucian literati, he showed astonishing piety and learning from his earliest youth, and at the age of 13 joined a Mahayana Buddhist monastery, under the influence of an elder brother. In 629, three years after the unification of China under the great Emperor Tai-Tsung, the founder of the mighty Tang dynasty, he set out across the Gobi desert to follow the caravan routes to India and study the Sanskrit texts of his religion in their native setting
After a stay of about ten years in Northern India, during which he travelled widely and studied the Mahayana doctrines under the greatest living masters, he returned to China, was welcomed by Tai Tsung with very great honour, and settling in a monastery at the capital, Changan, spent the remainder of his life translating the manuscripts he had brought with him, until his death in 664. These translations were plants whose flowers were later to be picked by Kobo Daishi and others and scattered all over China and japan.
He must have been a noble figure. Known to have been tall and handsome in appearance, he would have had some general resemblance to the famous Lohan in the British Museum, itself a figure of the Tang dynasty. Of his immense courage, his adventures give ample proof. Not once, but many times, he was in danger of his life when travelling alone or without adequate protection in wild and inhospitable regions.
Once, on the Ganges near Prayag, his Chinese biographer relates how he was captured by robbers who intended to offer him as a human sacrifice to the goddess Durga. When the altar was already erected, the Master of the Law (for such was his title) sat calmly awaiting his execution, plunged in meditation on Maitreya, the bodhisattwa who dwells in heaven and will incarnate as the next Buddha on earth.
Suddenly a great wind blew up, and the robbers, sensing that he was a holy man, became frightened, but he only opened his eyes and gently asked if the time for his execution had come. When he saw they were afraid of him, he exhorted them to give up their present way of life, and went on his way. And not only was he remarkable for courage, but also for the combination of deep devotional tendencies with high intellectual powers.
This highly intellectual philosopher prostrated himself in tears before the image of Avalokitesvara at Bodh-Gaya, and conceived his whole life as a continuous service to the Bodhisattwa Maitreya, whose name was on his lips at his death.
And what glittering scenes the narrative of his adventures brings before our eyes ! He lived in a dramatic period of the history of Asia. When he passed along the cities of the silk-routes, he did not know that they were flickering candles whose lights were soon to be extinguished for ever by the all-conquering Turk. Yet the account he has given us of life in these vanished cities, with their half-barbarian luxury, their famous perfumes and music and beautiful dresses, falls in with the discoveries of Sir Aurel Stein and other archaeologists, and throws light on the astonishing role they played as vehicles for the spread of religious and artistic ideas.
Moreover, in the mountainous regions he traversed when approaching Transoxania and its ancient cities of the plain, Houien-Tsang was the guest of the Khan of those very Turks whose descendants, having embraced the Mohammedan religion, were to push murderously to Constantinople and beyond in one direction, and far down the Ganges plain in the other. “The Khan dwelt in a huge tent decorated with golden flowers whose brilliance dazzled the eye.
His officials had long mats spread out, and on these they sat, in two rows, all wearing splendid costumes of brocaded silk. . . . The guests growing more and more lively, they accosted one another, challenging one another to drink, clashing their cups together, filling and emptying them in turn ; while this was going on, there sounded the crashing chords of barbarian music from north, south, east and west ”. Such were the ancestors of the Seljuk Turks, and also of Jenghiz-Khan.
In Afghanistan and Kashmir Houien-Tsang saw the vestiges of the great Graeco-Buddhist culture patronised by such monarchs as Kanishka, already sadly ravaged by the Ephthalite Huns, and visited the hallowed scenes of the Buddha’s experiences in previous lives, scenes connected with the noble acts of self-sacrifice celebrated in the Jataka tales. At Mathura he saw the red sandstone Buddhas of the Gupta dynasty in the 4th and 5th centuries a.d., the classical expression of the Buddhist artistic ideal.
Further east, he visited with reverence the scenes of the Buddha’s last life, including Pataliputra, capital of Magadha, and the scene of the historic council convened by the Emperor Asoka at which it was determined to evangelise the world. But of all Houien-Tsang’s associations in India, perhaps the most interesting were those with King Harsha and with the famous Buddhist monastery at Nalanda. Harsha was the last great monarch of Northern India before the Mohammedan deluge. Mighty warrior, philosopher and poet in one, his capital at Kanauj was the scene of religious conventions of dazzling splendour and magnificence.
Though himself a Buddhist, he assembled the doctors of every shade of religious opinion, holding disputes in the manner of the kings of the Mahabharata age, and Houien-Tsang was the witness of the amazing ceremony at Prayag at which he used to give away all his wealth in charity even down to his clothes and personal adornments. At Nalanda, Houien- Tsang studied under the aged monk Silabhadra, himself a descendant in a direct line of pupils and teachers from Asanga and Vasubandhu, the greatest doctors of the Yogacara or idealist school.
He has left us a description of the life and amenities of this monastery that is full of sweetness and dignity. “ Round the monasteries there flowed a winding stream of azure water, made more beautiful by blue lotus-flowers with wide open calyxes ; within the temple beautiful karnikara trees hung down their dazzling golden blossoms, and outside, groves of mangoes sheltered the dwellings with their thick shade . . .”
And what was the purport and significance of the great movement in which Houien-Tsang was taking a part ? He was neither the earliest nor the greatest of the missionaries who took the religion of Buddhism from India to China. Yet the personal influence on Tai-Tsung of his successful mission was great, and the fact that the Emperors of the Tang dynasty accepted Buddhism was of momentous consequences for the history of both China and Japan.
It meant that whereas Buddhism was soon to decline in India, its continuation as a civilising force and a means to individual salvation was guaranteed in the countries to the North. And what a wonderful record it has left in these countries of its adoption ! Two main elements may be distinguished in Mahayana Buddhism. The first may be called the religious element.
It teaches of a heaven inhabited by supernatural beings called Bodhisattwas who may be contacted by the prayers and adorations of the simple-hearted, who are the essence of tenderness and compassion, and the saviours of humanity, who lead them to the path of deliverance. Artistically, this aspect is expressed in the frescoes of Ajanta, in the beautiful banners discovered in the silk- routes by Pelliot and Sir Aurel Stein, in the sculptures of northern China and in the temples at Nara in Japan.
It is already found in the earliest hymns of the Togacara philosophers, and it transformed a whole people with the rise of Amidism in Japan.
The second element is mystical, based on meditation and self-absorption in the infinite, here and now.
It was the source of the strength and glory of China and Japan at the peak of their achievement, and is magnificently illustrated in the masterpieces of poetry, painting and sculpture that have come down to us.